This was the Falcons blowing the lead against Danny White and Dallas in January 1981. This was Mark Wohlers hanging the slider to Jim Leyritz in October 1996. Only it wasn’t. It was worse.
Those opponents were top-class. The Hawks just blew a 13-point lead and probably a playoff series to Milwaukee, which is a No. 6 seed missing its All-Star center. They trail 3-2 in a series they led 2-0. They face elimination on the road, a place they’ve won once in 11 tries over the past three postseasons.
Yeah, theoretically they could still pull this out, but how can you win in the Bradley Center when you can’t hold a nine-point lead inside the final four minutes with the series lead on the line? How can you put this colossal choke — I hate that word, but it applies here — behind you?
Up nine, and here’s what happened: Josh Smith missed a dunk by hitting the ball on the underside of the backboard; Jamal Crawford short-armed a layup, the first of his five misses down the stretch; the Hawks watched as Ersan Ilyasova grabbed every loose ball and Joe Johnson fouled out on a charge. Nine points up with 3:55 left, the Hawks saw the lead disappear in 116 seconds.
I say again: One hundred sixteen seconds.
There are no excuses for this game, this series. The team with the better players is the one with one foot out the exit door. The Bucks have two chances to win once. The Hawks are down to their final shot.
“We had control of the game,” Mike Woodson said. “We let it get away.”
Then this: “It’s still a seven-game series. We’re going to see what we’re made of.”
We may already have seen it. We may have seen a team of splendid resources hit its ceiling. The Hawks win because they’re talented, but talent hasn’t been enough against a smarter and more dogged opponent. If anything, talent has undone itself. The Hawks have played into the Bucks’ hands for three games now, and there seems no end in sight. The Bucks are now believers; the Hawks really aren’t sure what they are anymore.
“All winning basketball plays,” Woodson said of the two offensive rebounds claimed by Ilyasova that spawned five immense points, the final three coming on a corner trey by Carlos Delfino that put the Bucks ahead by four. But why can’t Woodson’s men make those plays? Why does everything always come down to Joe Johnson, and why, with Iso-Joe rendered inoperative this crucial night, did nobody have a clue? (Unless hoisting a jump shot is having a clue.) This isn’t supposed to be a one-man team, but right now it’s not playing like a team at all.
Said Milwaukee’s splendid Brandon Jennings: “When Joe Johnson went out of the game, I thought we had a chance.”
Nine points up, four minutes left. Four minutes from a 3-2 series lead. Four minutes that will live in infamy on the long list of Atlanta sports collapses. Four minutes that could lead to the dismantling of this roster and perhaps the dismissal of this coach. Four unbelievable minutes.
Really, though, how unbelievable were they? The Hawks blew a fat lead here against Dallas, nearly blew one against Orlando last month. They’re known as the team that can fall to pieces if you keep applying pressure, and on this wretched night they lived down to that sorry reputation. They wasted a lead that should have been safe and are positioned to lose a series that should already have been won.
Technically the Hawks haven’t yet been eliminated. But it sure feels that way.